Monday, March 25, 2013

The final nail - My UPSC interview


As I begin to write this, I wonder how much and how far would I be able to do justice to what actually happened. There was so much to digest, so much to understand and so much to decipher, that a word-by-word recall becomes improbable. However, I will try to reproduce the interview to the best of my ability so that those, who reach this stage at some point in their lives, can read, derive their own conclusions and thus, benefit.
At the outset, let me do away with the details of how we were directed into the waiting hall and asked to produce our certificates for verification. Let me also not talk about how anxious everyone else looked and how most pretended to either read a newspaper or indulge in light talk. Within, we were all jittery. We just didn't want it to show on our faces. I was 23rd in line to be interviewed. The wait for my turn to come was more ethereal than eternal. Finally, the time came. The clock struck 4 and I was ushered into the board room. Quite unlike my expectations, the room was well-lit and the board members looked amicable and welcoming. They were seated in a semi-circle and each one of them held a paper in their hands, which I presumed was my bio-data.

"Good afternoon Sir", I said with a cheerful nod to the Chairman. His name was Mr.Purushottam Aggarwal.
"Good afternoon, Akil. Sit", he said, motioning towards the chair.
While I took the chair, I wished the other members too who responded cordially.
"So you have done your Post-graduation in Mass Communication", the Chairman began.
" Yes Sir", I said.
" Media is such a thrilling field. Everybody wants to be seen on the camera these days. Why do you want to join a service as boring as the administrative service?", he asked.
Me- "Administrative service has always been a dream, Sir. I have always wanted to be of service to this nation and its people. Working on-camera, does not give me the same level of satisfaction as working off-camera does."
Chairman- "Then why waste 2 years doing Mass communication? You could have appeared for the civil service exams right after your graduation."
Me- "I could have Sir. But I did not. And I had two lines of thinking behind it. One, I come from Himachal Pradesh and I needed some exposure to see and understand the working of the system. Two, despite the prestige associated with civil services, I wanted to have an alternative to rely on".
Chairman- "If that was the case, you could have chosen any field. Why this one in specific?"
Me- " If you cast a look at my hobbies, Sir, you'd see that I am a little inclined towards the creative side. Mass communication was the obvious choice to help me capitalize on my hobbies. Plus, experiencing the field of journalism only strengthened my resolve to get in the services. "
Chairman- "Hmm. I see you have done your graduation from Dharamshala. Can you name a personality who has passed out from the same college as yours?"
Me- "Mr. Dev Anand, Sir"
Chairman- "Waah, Waah!". He said and everyone gave a broad smile. I don't know if it was sarcasm or they were really expecting me to name someone else. But he is the only one that I knew about. With this, the Chairman passed the baton to Member 2.

M2- " So Akil, You say Mass communication strengthened your resolve to be in the services. What made you think about getting into the services, in the first place?"
Me- " With your permission, I'd like to narrate an anecdote to answer this, Sir.
M2- "Go ahead."
Me- "It was somewhere in 2006 Sir, when I was having a discussion with a friend of mine. He blamed all ills of our society on the government and administration. His words left an indelible impression on my mind and I realized that criticizing a system from the warmth of our cosy homes is an easy task. What is difficult is to get in there, and be a part of the change you wish to see. This is when I decided that I wanted to be a part of the administrative service so that I could contribute towards national growth and development."
M2- "So you want to work for the growth of this nation?"
Me- "The nation and its people".
M2- "Okay. Tell me, do you know who Dalai Lama is?"
Me- " Yes Sir. He is the religious head of a certain sect of Tibetan Buddhism".
M2- "You stay near Dharamshala. Have you met him?"
Me- No Sir. I have seen him in public appearances but have ever had the opportunity to personally meet him".
M2- "Is it possible for laymen to personally meet him?" (He genuinely appeared to show interest)
Me- "Yes Sir. You have to write to his Secretary and seek an appointment. Sometimes it takes years! If you are lucky, it might as well take a few weeks only".
M2- "Why did he come to Dharamshala?"
Me- " The immediate reason was the threat of his arrest. A religious function was due and it was rumored, that the Chinese authorities would take him to Beijing. Otherwise, there was a larger picture behind it".
M2- " Tell me what the larger picture was?"
Me- "Sir, essentially the friction began in 1912. The Chinese Qing dynasty was dethroned and Tibet gained independence. It retained that status till 1951 when the PLA took over. A 17 point agreement was signed between Tibet and China which made Tibet an autonomous region within China. However, Tibet claims that this agreement was signed under duress. A revolution brewed for a good period of 9 years and its culmination saw Dalai Lama crossing over to India in 1959".
M2- "1959?", he asked with raised eyebrows, "Are you sure?"
Me- " Yes Sir, I am".
M2- "What was the status of Tibet before 1912?"
Me- "It was under Chinese domination".
M2- "Has it always been under Chinese domination?"
Me- "No Sir. But it has always been a part of some larger empire. There were periods when Tibet was completely autonomous. At other times, it was subjugated. However, they have always maintained a distinct culture and lifestyle". (I don't know how right this answer was, but this was the only neutral wording I could afford to use).
M2- " When did India accept Tibet to be a part of China?"
Me- " In 2003, Sir. During Prime Minister Vajpayee's regime".
M2- "Are you sure about that?"
Me- "That is what I am aware of Sir. Prime Minister Nehru, in his lifetime, had not accepted Chinese suzerainty over Tibet".
Here the Chairman interrupted- "It was in 1956 actually", he said, " That is when India accepted Tibet to be a part of China".
I had been specifically asked not to contradict. Though this went against the common knowledge, I only nodded, smiled and said that I was not aware of this fact.
M2- "What do you think should India do in the Tibet-China dispute?"
Me- "India follows a foreign policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries. The dispute between Tibet and China is for them to resolve. India can only provide conditions conducive to such resolution. In fact, we have formally stated that despite the asylum granted to the Tibetan administration, we would not permit any anti-China activities to take place on our soil".
M2- "Okay. What do you think about the current government?" (The change of topic was quite abrupt and random)
Me- "Each government has its flaws, Sir. This one has had its share too. It has created certain policies with lacunae. However, from what I have read and seen around me, it has also taken a number of appreciable steps. While it is not possible to create perfect institutions in the first go, measures have been still taken. I believe if the implementation and supervisory mechanisms are bettered, the government will be in a position to achieve much more" - ( I purposely did not name any schemes or programs as it would have lead to a discussion on that subject. Don't know if that was the right thing to do or if I could have used some names to enrich my answer).
When I finished with this though, I heard a little 'Good' from M2. Or maybe I am imagining it now. Anyway, he pointed me to Member 3 after this.



M3- "So you write stories?"
Me- " I do, Sir",
M3- "What kind of stories?"
Me- "Short stories, Sir. Both realist and non-realist fiction".
M3- "Okay. One of your hobbies is also Oratory".
Me- "Yes Sir"
M3- "I'll give you a topic. Think about it for 2 minutes and then give me an extempore speech. Can you?"
Me- "I'll try my level best Sir"- ( This actually excited me because it was pretty much within my sphere of competence.)
M3- "Your topic is- Should India have a Presidential form of Government? You are free to choose sides- For or against. Take your time to think".
While I gave myself a minute to ponder over my points I realized that while I was conversing with M3, the Chairman had gone to the washroom. He came back just then, saw me sitting without uttering a word and casually asked, "What happened?"
Before I could answer, M3 explained the situation to him and they sat quietly. After about 45 seconds, I began. The following is what I can loosely recollect. It explains the line I towed. I don't recall my exact words. It was extempore, remember?

"The founding fathers of India have blessed this nation with a democratic set-up. This decision was arrived at after thorough consultation and debate. The primary reason why India adopted a parliamentary form of government was to ensure that representation was provided to even the lowest rungs of the society. Considering the diversity, in terms of religion, culture and tradition, of India, transferring the power to the hands of a single person does not seem feasible. Not only would that hinder true empowerment but there would also be a worry of the man turning into a dictator".- I spoke for around a minute and I am not too sure what else I added in there, but yes, by and large, this was it.
M3 responded with an 'Okay', wrote something on a paper and referred me to M4.

M4- "How many deserts are there in India, Akil?"
Me- "There is the Thar Desert in Rajasthan and the Cold deserts of Himalayas" - (I believe this is what he wanted to check. If I knew about the deserts in the upper reaches of my state)
M4- Right.
While he sat looking at the paper in his hand, I added- "Also, the Runn of Kutch in Gujarat, Sir".
M4- "Oh Yes. I'd forgotten that"- And everybody shared a laugh. On what, I have no clue. However, I kept my smile on.
M4- "Do you know what is the minimum temperature in the cold deserts of Spiti?"
Me- "I can't be too sure Sir, but I believe it ranges between -10 to -20 degree Celsius."
M4- " You're right. Its. -15". He paused for a bit and then went again, "What is the minimum temperature in Antarctica?"
Me- " I can't be precise again Sir, but it should be somewhere between -60 to -80".
M4- "It is -129!". The Chairman interrupts, "Really?", he looks at M4. M4 nods.
Me- (With a look of genuine surprise on my face- or at least that is what I hope it was)- "Oh. I didn't know that, Sir".
M4- Smiles and continues with his tirade- " If you are posted as a DC in Lahaul-Spiti, what kind of statistics would you like to collect?"
Me- " Should these be in terms of physical or human statistics, Sir?"
M4- "Any. That's up to you."
Me- "Sir, the first thing I would do is to collect data on soil fertility. Agriculture has been a constant issue with these areas and a lot of land can be reclaimed for other income-generating purposes"
M4- "Like growing orchids and orchards?"
Me- "Yes Sir. Flori-culture and horticulture have a lot of scope in these areas"
M4- "Go on"
Me- "Secondly, I would come to the health and education parameters. If the populace is healthy and well educated, the technological interventions are well received. This would mean that economic and social inclusion would be easy. Finally, I would pay my attention to the infrastructural facilities and collect data about their presence and functioning".
M4- A sudden change of topic again- " If you are posted as a DC in Shimla, how would you handle the 'theft of' electricity?"
Call it a bad stroke of luck or the stupidity of my auditory mechanism, what I heard was "tapped up electricity". Or Maybe it was simply his pronunciation. Nevertheless, I asked- "I am sorry, Sir. Did you say tapped up electricity?"
M4- "Thaaaft", he clarified- It was his pronunciation after all. This may have irked him.
Me- " The first thing I would do is to try and find out the reasons for this theft....."
M4- "Are there reasons for electricity theft?", he cut me short, "What are they?"
Me- "Sir, they may range from unequal distribution to diversion for other purposes. Even over-consumption is a reason"
M4- "People simply put a hook over the wire which runs in front of their house and steal electricity. What reasons do you want to find? Don't you think you'll encourage corruption this way?"- He uttered this sentence in an extremely sarcastic manner, or so I presumed. He looked at other members and they shared a laugh. I felt a little embarrassed here but showing that publicly would have been disastrous. My damage-control mode got activated.
Me- " My apologies if I seemed to convey that message, Sir. I suppose my articulation was incorrect. When I said 'reasons', I meant, the 'how', 'when' and 'where' of the theft taking place. Once that has been determined, I would take a two-pronged action. One, the lapses on the part of the authorities would be accounted for. Those who are responsible for overlooking would be brought to book. Two, I would conduct household checks to ensure that they are not misusing electricity."
M4- "Okay", he simply said and motioned to Member 5. - I somehow feel I messed up with Member 4. My answer was probably not good enough.

M5- "Since you have studied Mass communication, you must have studied advertising?"
Me- "Yes Sir."
M5- "Then tell me, what is the difference between Advertising and Publicity?"
Me- "Advertising focuses its approach on 3 things- There must be a product, There must be a sponsor and the sponsor and the product must share a 'paid' relationship. Publicity, on the other hand is usually not about products. It relates selling an idea or opinion..."
M5- Interrupted me in the middle of the sentence, "Does Publicity have anything to do with being paid in comparison to Advertising?"
Me- "Sir, Advertising must be necessarily paid while Publicity may be either paid or unpaid."
M5- "Okay. Do you know about Oglivy's contribution to advertising?"
Me- "I am sorry Sir. Advertising was not my branch of specialization". - I realized the blunder later. I should have at least mentioned that Oglivy was the father of Advertising.
M5- "No problem. So, you have done your post-graduation from Amritsar."
Before I could say No, the Chairman corrected him, "No. He has done it from Delhi. Their University has a campus in Amritsar".
The he turned to me, "Am I right?"
I smiled politely, "You are, Sir".
M5- "Where in Delhi was your college located?"
Me- "At the Dwarka Institutional area".
With this M5 nodded. The Chairman picked up a paper, smiled and said, "Thank you, Akil".

I uttered the well-rehearsed Thank you's and walked out. Strangely, I neither felt anxious, nor nervous. There was just a subtle exhilaration at the interview being over. Since this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, I had to write it down. If you are reading this, please don't judge the conversation. I haven't got my results as yet. When I do, I'll know whether I am still in the frying pan or I have jumped into the fire.